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Composer Spotlight: Lucy Havelock

Interview conducted by Jan Li Tan, 12th April 2022. We caught up with Lucy Havelock to talk about her work and how improv has become an integral part of it.


Lucy Havelock is a 21-year-old composer, improviser, and saxophonist originally from Manchester, currently based in York. Her work aims to encounter every-day life, from the mundane, to the complexity of memory and identity. Lucy’s work often includes improvisation and collaborative processes with performers. Sonically, she is interested in exploring microtonality and timbre. She has recently worked with Psappha on their Youth Music Scheme, The Chimera Ensemble, and Ellie Stamp.


As part of her final project at university, Lucy developed a sensory-friendly new music theatre piece entitled IN TWO MINDS. This explored the notion of experiential duality, and informed her research into disability and representation in contemporary music making practices. This was performed in York by Ellie Stamp and Lucy as the opening event of the StreetLife project. As a performer and improviser, Lucy has frequently performed as part of The Chimera Ensemble, The Arc Project. In March 2022, she performed as a soloist at St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, as part of Sarah Markham’s Saxophone Day. Lucy was awarded the Ralph Markham Achievement Award in 2022 for her progress and development as a saxophonist throughout her undergraduate degree. Lucy was the Chair of The Chimera Ensemble for the academic year 2021-22 and upon graduating from the University of York in 2022, received the John Paynter Prize for her contributions to musical life in the music department.


Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, do you consider yourself a composer? What’s the best description?


I’m Lucy, I’m 21 and I don’t really know what I’d call myself at the moment. A lot of my work, composition-wise, includes improv-organised sound, rather than strict notation. That’s not to say that strict notation is the only way! But I don’t know whether I’m more a composer, performer, improviser, or where those boundaries lie at the moment. I just use those terms for ease, as they sum things up, but I never want to exclusively call myself a composer.


As in not limited to being a composer, but everything else as well?


Yeah. I also hate saying I’m a composer - it feels so weird! Rather than just saying ‘I write music sometimes’!


And do you think that your focus on improvisation will develop into your voice in the future, or is it more like a phase?


I think at the moment, I have a deep interest in it. I like trying it out and working with various methods to achieve the sound I’m looking for. Something that I’ve found is that it works for me to be collaborative in the process. It’s more about the interaction and thought processes behind each note rather than the actual pitch itself for me. It’s something that I think will stick, but it won’t be the only method I use.


Can you tell us a bit about your interests as a musician? Aside from improvisation, of course! What kind of styles do you enjoy?


I play the saxophone, which forms a big part of my practice. I mostly play, and write within contemporary idioms, whatever that really means! I also really enjoy playing and writing with microtones. This next bit is a bit nerdy, but on a saxophone, it is very hard to play a G half-sharp, so I had both of my saxophones adjusted to make it easier/provide an accurate fingering. The guy who did it was surprised that I was trying to do something that so many others spend hours trying to avoid and I thought, ‘ok maybe that sums me up!’


In my music, I’m very interested in exploring aspects that seem mundane, or that are about everyday life and personal experiences - one of my pieces is an exploration of the relationships between these two things. A recent composition was about the process of self-liberation. My most recent piece, in which I performed, was about relationships (in the broadest sense) and was based on the use of bell hooks quotes.


Why did you decide to become a musician?


I feel like I didn’t really decide - there wasn’t really another option. It’s what I always wanted to do. I enjoyed other subjects but knew I didn’t want to study them. My dad loves music and was very encouraging. I started playing the saxophone when I was 10 and composing around the age of 16 (during my GCSEs). I started to enjoy it a lot more at this stage, and even more at uni. My family all really like music and were very encouraging, and I think that is a huge part of my decision. I’m very grateful to them for that!


What made you choose saxophone, at age 10? Before then, did you have a very musical household?


My dad plays the guitar, and actually repairs instruments - he’s a luthier for fretted instruments and does custom work which he started just a few years earlier. I really liked singing, and my dad would sometimes play the guitar and sing to me and my sister when we were little.


I started playing the saxophone after my local music centre came into school and demonstrated different instruments to us. I had just moved to a new school, and saw a saxophone and thought, ‘that one is so cool, I want to do that!’ I went home and told my parents, and they said if I wait a year and still want to do it I can (they don’t remember this part of the story!). A year later, I still wanted to play it, and that’s how it started.


What has your involvement with the Arc Project been, and how have you found it?


I’ve mostly been involved as a performer, and I did some improv for the festival. I guess that’s maybe a stream of conscious composing. It feels like this intensely focused time. Sometimes I finish improvising and feel completely exhausted - it feels like I’ve done in such a short time what I would have spent months notating. But I had a huge amount of fun recording the improvs for Arc and messing up my loop equipment … The reason why I ended up calling them the 'oh no' loops was because as I was setting up my pedal, I accidentally clicked it and it caught me saying, ‘oh no’, which then started to loop around the space. As I tried to cancel it, I messed up again and it caught me saying, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ So all around the space, just as I’m about to play, all that people can hear is these two phrases being repeated! This kind of sums me up, as an incredibly clumsy person! I’ll definitely always remember that.

Lucy Havelock - The "Oh No" Improvisations (2021)


I think my first Arc project was with Des and Alex as an ensemble, which was really fun. Using Des’s notation was also really fun - guitar-hero style scrolling. There was another funny incident with this. I was about to send off these recordings, and I just thought I would check them one last time. At the start of one of them, it caught my mum (from downstairs) sneezing. It happened just as I played the first note! I recorded the note again and Des sorted it, but I’m so glad I double-checked it.


Nowadays, people say whatever happens during a performance becomes part of it.


Yeah, I don’t think the world would be prepared for ‘oh no’ and sneezing loops, though!


Also, I’m on the Arc team now as one of the Outreach Coordinators, which is really fun. I really enjoyed the festival - it was a really enjoyable week of learning and listening to people. It’ll be great to get on board with things properly once I’m done with my degree!


Especially now that we’re coming out of the pandemic?


Yeah, because all of my Arc engagements so far have been online, never in person.


How did you become involved with the outreach side of The Arc Project?


Well, Jake asked me if I wanted to be involved in festival planning. We were talking anyway, about gamelan and Chimera, and he suddenly just asked if I wanted another role. I don’t remember how it happened exactly, but here we are!


Could you name some musicians who have influenced your development and your style?


Currently, I’ve been obsessed with Catherine Lamb - very slow, expansive, microtonal pieces. That’s something that just seems to happen when I explain what I want to hear to performers in an improv setting. I'm not comparing my music to hers, because she is incredible! There is a saxophonist in Switzerland called Marcus Weiss who wrote a book on extended techniques for the saxophone. I’ve used this book throughout my entire degree - I spent lockdown working my way through all of these techniques which I’ll hopefully be able to play properly in my recital!


I often struggle to think of which composers I really love. A piece I love, which was played at hcmf// in November, is Enno Poppe’s Prozession. It’s another really long piece, but it’s completely different to Lamb. A lot of what I listen to isn’t really contemporary - although I sometimes work whilst listening to composers such as Lamb and Eliane Radigue, or the New Music Show, but often I get too distracted because I want to understand what’s happening. I listen to a lot of Björk, Joni Mitchell, Jenny Hval, and Cocteau Twins. Recently, I’ve realised that an aspect of music I’m really interested in is timbre. I realised it at a time when I was thinking carefully about the music I was listening to - I find people with unique voices very interesting. I am also a huge fan of the trip-hop genre - a lot of the singers within that, and the others I’ve mentioned, have really unique voices.


I didn’t grow up listening to classical music at all. The first composer I became obsessed with was Ravel when I was around 16. I especially loved his opera ‘L’enfant et les Sortilèges’. Younger me did a good job of picking someone whose orchestration is so good. My tastes turned pretty quickly to contemporary music when I started uni, which I was sort of interested in before but never realised until I got to university where contemporary music became more of a defined thing for me. I remember I tried to attend a talk at the RNCM during my A-levels, which included some student compositions and a Saariaho piece (Saariaho was supposed to be there and talk, and the day before she cancelled due to illness!). When I first listened to her music, I was quite astounded, I don’t think I’d ever heard anything like it.


If you had to choose one of your works of which you are particularly proud, which would you choose and why?


Ooh, I don’t know. It would be one of two. One, my most recent piece, was pretty much all improv — it’s called upon; surrounding; referencing; reminiscing, and it was performed with The Chimera Ensemble with myself on sax and my friends on organ, tuba and piano. This is the piece loosely based on some bell hooks quotes, which I mentioned earlier. It sort of centred around memory with the use of her quotes. I’m actually very proud of that one because it was my first entirely devised piece. I found the process initially extremely difficult, including the concept of leading the ensemble whilst performing, as I was simultaneously composing and structuring everything whilst improvising myself. Also, getting a group of people to improvise together in a semi-structured way was a very fun but challenging thing to push through. So I’m definitely proud of pushing through those challenges. Also, the performance went very well and was one of the best takes!

The other piece I thought of was composed during Psappha’s Youth Music Scheme. It was for piano and cello, with fabric preparations in the piano and a fabric bow cover for the cello. I not only enjoyed the process of writing the piece (it was about self-liberation) but also loved working with them and discovering new preparations and unique sounds. The cello sound I created was one I’d never heard before — the faster the bow, the more it sounded like the wind. That’s something I would like to explore more because it ties in with my main interest in timbre (not the relationship between pitches but how things sound together). I don’t even know how to describe how I feel about it! Upon reflection, I think my interest in timbre should’ve been obvious to me from this and making all the preparations!


Lucy Havelock - upon; surrounding; referencing; reminiscing (2022)


Returning to your interests, aside from improvisation, which areas do you think you would like to explore more in the future?


I’m very keen to keep exploring with electronics. I’ve done a bit with loops and pedals whilst performing saxophone, but I haven’t done much with tape or live electronics, for example. I would really like to learn to code, or programme, at some point, because I think it’s just so cool, and I’d like to be more self-reliant in terms of tech. The things that people make with that are so impressive. I would also like to be able to make my own custom pedalboard, as it’s really difficult to find a good pedal for the saxophone. For a while, I’ve been using a vocal effects pedal, but all of the effects on it (apart from distortion) are always very tonal — which is great, and was a useful start, but it’s not really what I do, and I want so much more beyond that. I need a lot of time to sit down and work those things out, as I definitely need a deeper and better understanding.

I would like to write some larger-scale works as well, more reliant on notation. Having done a lot of improv, I now have a better idea of what I can and can’t notate, the capabilities of instruments, and the possibilities of different sounds. I just want to do so much and hopefully, I’ll make some time soon.


Is there anyone with whom you would like to collaborate with in the future?


Yes, I hadn’t collaborated much with friends at uni, whether on my music or theirs. One piece I’m writing at the moment is with a friend at uni — I love improvising with her because we’re so close, so we can be very honest. I also really enjoyed the process with Chris, Kieran and Laura, for the piece which we just performed.


In terms of people beyond my usual circles, I’m not entirely sure. I could name people, but I think a lot of the time I just think of things that are very self-contained. I guess it’s the control side of things (if it goes wrong then it’s all my fault). Also, a side effect of the pandemic has been that my entire degree has taken place during it, so I’ve been doing a lot on my own. I really love the process of collaborating, but I can’t think too far ahead!


If you could perform, or have your piece performed anywhere in the world, which would you pick?


That’s quite a brutal question! I would want it to be a small, intimate venue. I don’t think I could ever imagine playing in a huge arena - nor would my music suit that. I don’t want that kind of thing. I want to do more in Europe, especially since there seems to be more of a scene there for what I want to be doing in terms of saxophone playing. There’s definitely a lot going on in Switzerland that I’d love to explore.


I’m quite interested in spaces that aren’t normally venues, and the boundary between installation and concert. The piece I’m working on at the moment will be performed in a church which has a crazy, boomy acoustic, which I absolutely love and suits the piece perfectly. I don’t often think about second performances!


An old salt mine, or cave, with a huge reverb would be so much fun!


Which projects have you recently been involved with, which you would like to talk about?


Well, I’ve mentioned the piece in Chimera quite a bit.


I think this one will be finished by the time the interview is released, but my final year solo project at uni is called IN TWO MINDS, a piece for two performers. As a whole, the project is about disability in contemporary music-making practices, and how it can be more integrated. It’s partly about experiential duality, which explores the duality in human experience, especially upon receiving a new diagnosis, or after realising they have a chronic illness or disability. It’s this notion that you can experience the past self and your current self simultaneously — your duality and your identity. It ties into a lot of my interests over previous pieces, with self-liberation and human relationships. It’s for two performers, myself and a friend - I’ll be playing sax and she’ll be singing. It’s structured improv, so we have set textures and destinations, and we explore ideas around that. It’s also designed to be a Sensory Friendly Concert, which almost borders installation. People will be free to move around, or sit on the floor — people can shape their own experience. The venue and the piece have to cater to the audience, so if anyone wants to move, or leave, or if they need ear defenders, it’s provided for them. One of the Sensory Friendly Concert requirements is about lighting — it shouldn’t be bright, it should be natural and relaxed. The whole project is my final submission for my undergrad, so I’ll be putting on the piece as part of it, and then will have some write-up and will be trying to coherently glue everything together.


Beyond that, I’m not entirely sure what’s next! Hopefully, just working and composing after I graduate.

Lucy Havelock - two take improv on current feelings (2020)

What are you going to be doing after you graduate?


I will be staying in York for a short while and working for a theatre company, which I worked for over the summer last year. Then I hope I’ll move to London, or maybe even straight to Europe. There’s a masters course in Switzerland I would like to do, but that’s not for a year or two! Once I’ve graduated I’ll also have more time for Arc projects I hope. A big part of wanting to move to London is that I’d be able to go to more concerts and collaborate with friends a lot more. I have been able to do this here, but hopefully, London will be a place in which I can build on that.


Great. And, final question, what are five things you couldn't live without on a desert island? The first three would be my saxophone, a device for music listening with headphones and a cast-iron dutch oven. There’s a poet I’m obsessed with called Lisel Mueller — she was born in Germany and moved to America as a child. Her dad was a political activist at the outbreak of WWII, so they fled to America. Her poems are beautiful, there’s an excellent collection called Alive Together - so definitely that. Maybe a picture of my family, because that would make me happy. Or it would make me sad that I’m not with them… Either way, it’d be nice to have the connection to home.


Keep updated with Lucy's work by following her on Twitter!


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